Product Management’s big appeal is also its biggest challenge. This is a new industry with very few formal tertiary pathways, so…where do you start?
The good news is that product management (PM) is booming, big time. According to 2018 reports from Australian Computer Society (ACS) and Deloitte, Australia needs 200,000 new ICT workers over the next five years if we’re going to remain competitive. That sort of industry-scrabbling demand tends to increase job prospects and wage growth – according to 2018 data, the average salary for product managers in start-ups is $120k, with the industry average sitting around $110k. Not too shabby for a career that didn’t exist 10 years ago.
We sat down with RMIT's Dr Kevin Argus, Naomi Schofield from product consultancy Tigerspike, and Stewart Boon, founder of AuctionFox, to chat all things product management. Here’s their 5 tips for getting into the industry.
“Product Managers are now in high demand, and have been touted the new frontier of tech,” says Kevin Argus, Program Manager of RMIT Online's Graduate Certificate of Product Management. The beauty of Product Management is that it’s a tech-related field that doesn’t require in-depth tech skills. You don’t need to be a Python wizard to be a good product manager. Naomi says most product managers begin their careers elsewhere, in fields like Marketing, UX or IT, before transitioning into Product Management. This does present some challenges for the industry; the big one being that most companies still don't understand exactly what a product manager does. Formal training and pathway options, like through RMIT Online's portfolio, are a great way for professionals to skill up, without putting their work or life on hold.
Work on your soft skills
According to a 2016 ACS report, there’s an increased demand for product managers who possess so-called ‘soft skills’. Leadership, the ability to manage stakeholder relationships, customer empathy, curiosity and so on (according to the numbers, six of the top 10 skills for product managers were non-technical). “There's a joke that Product Managers have lots of responsibility but no power, as most Product Managers don’t have any direct reports,” Stewart says. “So Product Managers need to be good at influencing outcomes based on qualitative and quantitative data, together with solid logic and lot of conversation. This will be in their teams with designers and developers, but also working with stakeholders from different areas in the business.”
Pitch an internal switch
Many companies these days are recruiting product managers from internal teams like marketing, web design or UX. If you want to increase your chances of pivoting into a new role, do your research. Pick up some skills with a product management shortcourse, identify the needs of your business, put together a business case and pitch it. Good product management is more about insight than experience, and if you can show your value to the company, you’re halfway there. “Most clients do it internally,” Naomi says. “They pick people from their business teams – marketing or IT and so on – and they say, ‘Okay you’ve got a new job now you’re the product owner for blah blah blah’. It’s about transitioning workers into product strategy roles. We see that all the time.”
Customer comes first
‘Know Thy Customer’ is pretty much the cardinal rule of product management. In fact Atlassian says it’s the one thing they look for when hiring prospective product managers – an awareness of who the customer is and what they actually want (for further reading, check out Ken Norton’s famous 2005 essay, ‘How To Hire A Product Manager’, which is still remarkably relevant today). Customer awareness is something anyone can work on. If you’re applying for a product manager role in a particular industry, research the hell out of their customer base and come equipped with stacks of relevant customer segmentation data. Make a conscious effort to develop your listening and empathy skills. Invest in customer-centric shortcourses like RMIT’s Design Thinking For Innovation.
Join online communities
There are actually stacks of good online resources for people looking to get into product management. You can join product management communities on Slack and Linkedin (ProductManagerHQ, MindTheProduct and the Product Management Networking Group are all good places to start). Ask questions, set up coffee meetings, find a product management mentor who will take you under their wing. There are also some excellent product management blogs and websites out there publishing relevant, up-to-date industry content. Ken Norton, a former Google product executive, is one of the best. There’s also Product Plan and Pragmatic Marketing, who publish pretty regularly. If you’re thirsty for more, Medium has rounded up the top 50 product management blogs online. Save them to your bookmarks and get reading.